An attitude of curiosity is of vital importance to your horse’s trainability and willingness to learn. Let’s take a look at how your can nurture this trait in your horse, and yourself!
Nurturing curiosity in your horse is the quickest way to build confidence, dissolve frustration, and solve problems in training. This is true for you, too, as the one training and working with your horse.
Why is curiosity important?
A curious mind is a mind that is asking questions. The brain loves to be right, so when you ask it a question, or encourage it to ask questions, it will find an answer. The key is to ask high quality questions of yourself and your horse.
The opposite of curiosity is mental disengagement, apathy and indifference. In that state it impossible to solve a problem, and this leads to frustration, boredom or assumption. If you are sure that things will never change or improve, why bother even trying? If you assume you already know what is going to happen, you become “committed to the inevitable”, and so it is difficult to change behavior and outcomes. This almost guarantees that the problem will persist.
Asking high quality questions
This downward spiral can be changed in an instant if you can shift to a state of curiosity by asking high quality questions. For example:
Recall a time when you were really frustrated by a problem you were having with your horse. Chances are your brain was saying some version of: This is impossible, I am terrible at this! or He never picks up the correct lead! But what if you instead asked a high quality question such as: What is one thing I could do a little better today? or What else could I try to help him pick up that lead? I guarantee your brain will come up with an answer!
This is why curiosity and confidence go together. If you train yourself to become curious, you will become more confident. When you ask yourself a question, it is implied that you are the one with the answer! And as you become more confident, you will become even more curious. That will put you on an upward spiral of success.
Making curiosity a habit
Form the habit of asking high quality questions. Here are some questions I make a habit of asking in order to happily move through difficult moments:
Questions I ask myself:
- What’s one thing I could improve right now?
- How could I be clearer?
- What’s working well?
Questions I ask my horse:
- How can I help you with this?
- What do you need to know?
- What else could you try?
Horses are curious by nature, and they really do want to figure out what we are asking of them. Unfortunately, if we don’t make a point of nurturing their curiosity, it is possible to train it right out of them. We do this by not allowing them to ask and explore questions of their own.
Questions you want your horse to be asking:
- What is that?
- Where are you?
- What are we doing?
- How about this?
When a horse is frustrated or afraid of something he will zone out, freak out, or act out. In those states he is not mentally engaged. Control may temporarily get you through a difficult moment, but triggering curiosity is what will solve the problem. When a horse is feeling safer and calmer he will start to investigate what he was afraid of, until he ultimately touches it with his nose. That is when he begins the process of trying to answer the question: What is that? Often, a horse will put his nose on a scary thing, give it a sniff, and then go completely calm as if saying: Oh, it’s just a dumb chair, I knew that.
It is important to allow this process. This is what helps the horse gain confidence. Horses are often reprimanded for putting their noses on things or investigating their surroundings. I met a horse that was very nervous in the barn. I observed him pawing anxiously while on crossties. I took him off the crossties and he immediately went to sniff at the wall beside him, where some equipment was hanging. But the owner reflexively blocked and reprimanded him. “The bridle is expensive!” she exclaimed. I suggested she just watch for a moment, and added that if he went to chew on the bridle we would take it away. He sniffed it, then turned around. As I followed him, he spent about five minutes sniffing and investigating everything on the wall behind him, then he turned back around and sighed. I dropped the lead rope and he stood quietly where just minutes ago he had been anxious. His owner had not allowed him to answer the question: What is that?
Nurturing curiosity through choices
We also want our horses to be asking questions about their training, and we need to be able to answer them. Many training methods are based purely on control. We can build the horse’s confidence by allowing him to make choices and explore several options in order to discover the answer. Focus on targeting and rewarding effort and a willingness to try something, rather than just end results.
For example, instead of trying to keep your horse on the rail with strong aids, focus on the rail, then allow him some freedom to choose where to go. If he comes off the rail, steer him back, then allow him freedom again. This creates a puzzle for him. It will cause him to ask the question: What are we doing? or How about this? Doing it this way will cause him to figure out that the easiest path is to choose to stay on the rail. The act of having to figure something out will engage his curiosity and result in a more confident horse.
If the horse has no sense of choice, he will stop being curious and communicative and instead will helplessly disconnect from the process. He could eventually stop trying altogether. Even if what he offers isn’t immediately what you want, allow him some room to investigate his options.
How curious are you? Are you reading this article thinking: This won’t work, or are you wondering How can this help me? If you need help being more curious, then just start by wondering. You may be surprised how the trait of curiosity can help you and your horse!
Curiosity is one of Karen’s nine Habits of Excellent Horsemanship. You can learn more about her Habits of Excellent Horsemanship course at do.dressagenaturally.net/horsemanship.
Karen Rohlf, creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for her student-empowering approach to teaching, her ability to connect with a wide range of horses, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view. dressagenaturally.net